Sports teams and entertainers frequently, if unwittingly, find themselves on the same planes that have been (or will become) the site of human rights violations. Should they care? We think so.
A new report from the University of Washington's Center for Human Rights released this week documents human rights abuses that occur on removal flights carried out for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Using plane tail numbers, the authors of Abuses in the Air: Sports Travel and the Deportation Industry are able to show that the very same planes are used to shepherd college athletic programs, professional sports teams and entertainers around the country.
The University of Washington's Center for Human Rights has become one of the leading investigative entities uncovering the contractual relationships that constitute the infrastructure of ICE Air Operations. Their 2019 report, Hidden in Plain Sight: ICE Air and the Machinery of Mass Deportation, is one of the clearest explanations of ICE Air Operations one might find. Available here. It is definitely worth your time.
The first thing to know is that ICE Air Operations does not own its own planes. ICE Air Operations does not even directly manage their own flight scheduling. A private company handles the whole operational side of managing ICE Air Operation's flights. Currently Classic Air Charters holds the contract to manage ICE Air Operation's flights, a contract worth $740 million plus over a 5-year period, with a ton of contingencies to bump that number up.
Classic Air Charters subcontracts with other private carriers to actually conduct the flights. Swift Air/iAero has received the bulk of subcontracted flights in recent years. Other carriers include World Atlantic Airlines, Global Crossing Airline and Omni Air. For example, of the 36 removal flights to Haiti that happened in May of this year, 21 were on Swift Air/iAero charters, 6 were on World Atlantic Airlines, 6 were on Global Crossing, and 3 were Omni.
Deporting migrants and/or flying them between cities within the United States is the product of US policy and appropriations. ICE Air Operations is a public entity spending tax dollars to implement its program. And yet, like the for-profit immigrant detention industry, ICE Air operates with minimal accountability, and seems to require little from the corporations that implement their program.
The entire operational side of ICE Air is shrouded in secrecy. ICE Air Operations shares the average cost “per flight hour” on their website, for example, but it is almost impossible to find out what was actually paid for an individual flight, or to view the contracts between Classic Air Charters and its subcontractors. This is a problem, since ICE operational standards do not automatically apply to corporate contractors, unless specified in the contract.
The result is a system in which the violation of civil and human rights is commonplace.
Human rights violations and the charter business
Abuses in the Air: Sports Travel and the Deportation Industry identifies systemic violation of human rights that occur as a result of the way the United States government/ICE manages deporations. They include the denial of non-refoulement, torture, denial of due process, and double punishment. The companies that profit from deportation flights are thus implicated in the underlying systemic human rights violations that would not occur absent their complicity. In some cases, such as physical abuse and torture that occur during the flights, these companie are directly the agents of the violations.
The report makes clear that these companies, indeed using the very same planes, facilitate human rights violations, and then move the seats around in order to fly your daughter's college volleyball team to a national tournament, or your favorite pro-team around the country. For example, consider this example of the violation of non-refoulement.
[caption id="attachment_10431" align="alignright" width="900"] Image from Abuse in the Air report[/caption]
All of our lives are implicated in the labyrinthine network of business relationships that make immigration enforcement profitable, and thus, so difficult to regulate. Who, at this point, has not ordered from Amazon, or watched a video on Prime? Amazon is part owner of the Air Transport Services Group, which manages Omni Air. Almost everybody has done business, as a consumer or partner, with a company financed by the Blackstone Group, which holds a majority stake in iAero, as well as dating apps, health service companies, and cyber security firms.
All of these connections are mystified by secret deals, and layers of contractual relationships. Are you to blame for deportation violence because you watched the last season of Bosch on Freevee? No. But we can't escape the fact that profits from these human rights violations are woven throughout our economy and we need to make ourselves more aware of this fact. The authors write,
The secrecy that surrounds deportation flights have allowed too many of us to distance ourselves from the abuse funded with our tax dollars; understanding the connections between our government, air charter companies, and some of the most well known institutions in our midst may help us begin to unravel these knots, untangling our complicity in the practices that draw profit from migrants' pain.
As the US government refuses to hold subcontractors responsible, and the carriers have no incentive to police themselves, it is up to all of us to speak out against this abuse. We think that sports teams, entertainers, and others who use private charters should also take a stand not to use the same companies that ICE contracts with, until there is an end to abuse on these planes.